Tag Archives: Jeff Barneson

Book 7 – I Once Was Lost: What Postmodern Skeptics Taught Us About Their Path to Jesus

Every three years all the InterVarsity staff meet in St. Louis for several days to pray, worship and learn together. Why we do it there – during the coldest days of the year – is a long story. But I want to say that I really love it. The main reason is that I get to meet and learn from staff colleagues like Don and Doug – that’s where I first heard their ideas about engaging their friends and talking about Jesus.

As I listened to their stories and looked at their diagrams, I realized that their description mapped well onto the journeys of many of my friends who had become followers of Jesus. It made sense to me then; and having read the book and thought about it a lot since then, it still does.

This is a book for followers of Jesus who want to know how to speak helpfully and relevantly to their friends about Jesus. In some ways, it’s an old-fashioned book about evangelism – replete with thresholds that we hope our friends will cross.

Thinking back to Carl’s book and others along the way that disparage the word evangelism, I think it is important to highlight what these guys do that is different from most evangelists. The difference is in how they think about what the threshold framework means and how it is used:

We offer it as a discernment tool, something to help you ask good questions. As you seek God for wisdom about what your non-Christian friends need, you are in a great learning posture. Our hope is that as you use this tool with the Lord and your community to understand your non-Christian friends and neighbors more clearly, you will grow in servant evangelism. (p. 132)

The reality is we each need to make a decision to serve our non-Christian friends. Just because we understand more clearly what post-modern folks need in their journey, it does not necessarily follow that we will give them what they need. (p. 133)

Their hearts are for their friends and, like their forbearer the Apostle Paul, they are inclined to become all things so that their friends can take whatever step is their next toward Jesus.

THINGS I LIKED

1. Don and Doug remind us that it is mysterious thing to come to Jesus – process isn’t linear or merely logical. I’m glad they say this at the beginning to underscore the need for prayer.

2. The thresholds that Don and Doug have identified make sense to me:

Trusting a Christian:  distrust -> trust

Wondering about Jesus:  apathetic -> curious

Opening up to Change: closed -> open

Seeking after God: meandering -> seeking

Entering the Kingdom: lost -> saved

They identify where the challenge lies and suggest ways to really help. Asking pointed questions and praying specific prayers is the path forward.

3. I like this question:

How can we be good friends (and farmers) during this part of our friends’ journeys? Is it possible to help people open up to change? Are there ways we can walk alongside our friends as they face the steep, difficult, spiritually charged hill in front of them? (p. 70)

4. I liked their chart (p. 91-2) for thinking about answering questions (ATTIC) – an interesting spin on traditional apologetics that they have found more helpful to postmodern skeptics.

Affirm – Bless their curiosity

Translate – Express the abstract in relationship to your own life

Transparent – Be confessional about your own struggle

Insert yourself as a case study – Personalize the question to yourself

Challenge – So what about you?

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

1. As with others who have written about faith development (James Fowler, M. Scott Peck, Dave Schmelzer, Richard Rohr, etc.) Don and Doug’s framework charts a course that it true for many but not all. I always have trouble mapping my own faith journey onto these frameworks. It makes it hard for me to speak personally and confessionally about my own path to Jesus.

2. At several places (especially at Threshold 3) Don and Doug encourage initiative – even bold initiative – to help our friends “connect the dots,” “reframe events” (p. 80), get “unstuck” and move into the next frame. Of course we see Jesus doing this in the Gospels, right? And while I can think of many people who have done this for me at different times, it still makes me nervous. While I may have some insight and be helpful in interpreting their situation – e.g. “I think God is trying to get your attention…” (p. 81) – I don’t want to suggest more than God is actually saying.

Earlier in the book they affirm asking questions:

Jesus is asked 183 questions in the Gospels. He answers just 3 of them—and he asks 307 questions back! (p. 54)

A seminary professor we know says, “A good question is worth a thousand answers.” Sometimes when someone asks us a question, an answer is the last thing they need. Instead, they need someone to stoke the fire of curiosity in their soul. (p. 55)

Sounds about right to me. And true for me no less than for my friends.

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Book 5 – The Great Divorce

I first read The Great Divorce when I was in college – it was an undergraduate special course that was offered mainly as an excuse to read C.S. Lewis. Seeking any relief I might find from engineering problem sets I dove in and loved every minute.

I heard then that Lewis thought his best fiction book was Till We Have Faces. That book is remarkable. But this one, The Great Divorce, remains my favorite – Here’s why…

Lewis says there is a choice to make and how we choose really matters.

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened. (p. 90)

In the book, Lewis introduces us to a bunch of ghosts who live in hell, who struggle first to get on the bus from heaven to hell, and then with the invitation to stay in heaven. He writes about young lovers, an artist, a businessman, a theologian, a bereaved mother, a seductress, a domineering wife.

What is remarkable are the number of different reasons that each of these ghosts have for resisting heaven and returning to hell. The various ways they get stuck are simultaneously funny (if you like dark humor) and tragic. At times I found myself speaking out loud to them, urging them to chose joy. But in nearly every case they chose hell because, as Lewis quotes Milton:

The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words, “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” (p. 86)

THINGS I LIKED

1. Heaven (p. 52) is the “land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.”

2. You can’t bring hell with you into heaven. In fact, whatever is not of heaven has to be killed first. Anything – esteem for our God-given talents, desire to know the truth, and even the love of a mother – can become a corrupted idol in need of conversion.

3. The declaration of the shining spirit (p. 54) “We know nothing of religion here: we think only of Christ.” Carl would like that!

3. Hell is small, insubstantial and going from gray to black. Heaven is big, solid and is going from dawn to brilliant day. The description of the gray city where you can have anything by merely imagining it is brilliant and terrifying.

4. The idea of a theological society in hell (p. 56) just cracks me up as does the reference to Napoleon (p. 23) rattling around in his mansion millions of miles away from his closest neighbors.

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

There’s only one thing that slightly troubles me about the book – the images of heaven and hell. I realize that Lewis isn’t trying to paint any sort of picture of heaven and hell that might correspond with what might actually be there. That being said, I still have a question about his description. In particular:

• Heaven is pristine wilderness – hell is a dirty city.
• Heaven is above in the sky – hell is down below.
It’s not that I don’t find this description compelling – it is! What troubles me that it doesn’t seem biblical and seems to fit in with the general impression that the city is bad and the country is good. Similarly, it contributes to the belief that God’s ultimate plan is to take us out of this place “way beyond the blue,” as I remember singing in Sunday school.

The Bible tells a different story. Rather than taking his people out of the planet, God’s intention is to renew the earth. It doesn’t happen somewhere in the sky, but right here. Nature is renewed and the earth is restored (Romans 8).

It also doesn’t just happen in the country. In fact the main event seems to be the descent of the city of God – the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21) on the earth. I remember hearing Dennis Bakke saying on numerous occasions, “The Bible began in a garden but it ends in a city. You have an urban future whether you like it or not.”

At the same time I can’t imagine how even C.S. Lewis could write those ideas into the text in a way that seems as beautiful as lines like these…

…the solitude was so vast that I could hardly notice the knot of phantoms in the foreground. Greenness and light has almost swallowed them up. But very far away I could see what might be either a great bank of cloud or a range of mountains. Sometimes I could make out in it steep forests, far withdrawing valleys, and even mountain cities perched on inaccessible summits. At other times it became indistinct. The height was so enormous that my waking sight could not have taken in such an object at all. Light brooded on the top of it: slanting down thence it made long shadows behind every tree on the plain. There was no change an no progression as the hours passed. The promise—or the treat—of sunrise rested immovably up there. (p. 36)


Book 4 – Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense

The book we read this week may be called Simply Christian but if you read it with me you’ll probably agree that it isn’t simple. Amazing, Yes! Simple, No.

There is a reason that N.T. Wright is called the C.S. Lewis for the post-modern generation. He has written more books (lots of BIG THICK books) and papers about Jesus than I could read in a dozen summers and is engaged in the conversation about what it all means with both skeptics and believers from all around the world.

I first met him when he was the biblical scholar and teacher at our InterVarsity national conference for graduate students and faculty in 1998. Since then he’s been with us at Harvard on many occasions – most recently as a speaker for a series in 2008 we called Reconstructing Hope (scroll down on the website, the recordings of those lectures and the question & answer time are worth a listen.)

When he was a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School a few years ago I had occasion to sit in from time to time on his lectures about Jesus and the Gospels. After each class I felt like we should end the class on our knees in prayer or communion or something – so profound were the ideas, drama, and Christ of the gospel we were being led to encounter. It was just overwhelming.

So, I’m a fan and think that his books and ideas are worth whatever work it takes. I’m not the only one. Each of the books we’re read this summer have more than traces of Wright’s ideas. Of course, you could say they are all reading the same Bible but I know that Carl, James and Brian are all fans too. Not primarily fans of N.T. Wright but rather of the One whose kingdom he is inviting us to embrace.

THINGS I LIKED

1. Putting the World to Rights. It isn’t the way I talk but I love the phrase and the idea. Something is wrong and God intends to set it right.

2. While it is not conclusive, the discussion in the fist part about Echos is helpful. He says that our longings for Justice, Spirituality, Relationship, and Beauty all point to something – to someone – who is both the source and fulfillment of all of these. I totally see it and feel it – these impulses seem to come from God. It is interesting, though – only a few of the scholars from China who have been reading this text with me this summer were persuaded. In the last pages in the book he lines out how these echos are renewed and consummated – it is beautiful.

3. God’s sphere and ours overlap, intersect and coincide in different ways at different times. In this regard he references Torah and Temple (p. 132) but also the community of Jesus followers as they gather in witness (p. 134-5), worship (p. 144), prayer (pp. 161-5), and Bible study (p. 187).

4. God’s future leaks back into the present in the lives of those who embrace his coming kingdom – It is happening here and now!

5. I loved his discussion of worship and how it both retells the story of God’s might acts in Scripture and anticipates the kingdom.

6. Chapters 9 (God’s Breath of Life) and 10 (Living by the Spirit) are about the Holy Spirit. Both are beautiful.

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

1. The thing I found most challenging about the whole book is knowing how to use it. Like I said above, it may be called Simply Christian, but it is far from simple. Virtually every page is loaded with references to other texts or theological ideas that are difficult for people who don’t read this stuff.  I suppose that is just the way it goes, but very few of my skeptical friends would be able to pick up this text and decode it on their own.

2. Chapter 5 (God) was difficult – especially the philosophical section that distinguished pantheism & dualism from his “overlapping and interlocking” description of heaven and earth.  The section on The Name of God seemed confusing to the Chinese scholars in the Bible and Tea Group.

3. In chapter 7 Tom briefly takes on questions related to the trustworthiness of the text – the Gospels in particular. Of course he says that these few pages can’t truly assess “their historical worth,” (p. 99). This disclaimer helped a bit but was undone by his poetic line at the end of the paragraph:

The Jesus who emerges is thoroughly believable as a figure of history, even though the more we look at him, the more we feel once more that we may be staring into the sun.

4. In chapter 8 (Jesus: Rescue and Renewal) Tom draws us into the mystery of Jesus’ own vocation, suffering and self-understanding. Once again, these are big important questions but I worry that his comments only serve to raise more issues than he resolves.

At the end I’ve gotta say that I think this book is a gift. I’m sure I’ll keep coming back and rereading sections in the future. Who knows, someday maybe I’ll tackle his multi-volume Christian Origins and the Question of God. In the meantime, I want to conclude this short reflection by quoting Wright’s soaring answer to the question, “So what is Christianity about, then?” It seems to me almost impossibly beautiful…

Christianity is all about the belief that the living God, in fulfillment of his promises and as the climax of the story of Israel, has accomplished all this—the finding, the saving, the giving of new life—in Jesus. He has done it. With Jesus, God’s rescue operation has been put into effect once and for all. A great door has swung open in the cosmos which can never again be shut. It’s the door to the prison where we’ve been kept chained up. We are offered freedom: freedom to experience God’s rescue of ourselves, to go through the open door and explore the new world to which we now have access. In particular, we are all invited—summoned, actually—to discover, through following Jesus, that this new world is indeed a place of justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty, and that we are not only to enjoy it as such but to work at bringing it to birth on earth as in heaven. In listening to Jesus, we discover whose voice it is that has echoed around the hearts and minds of the human race all along.


Book 3 – The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything

Brian McLaren observes that what American Christians put forward as Gospel (Good News) about Jesus bears little resemblance to what Jesus himself said was Good News. I believe he is right and the implications for, not just the followers of Jesus, but the whole world are profound.

If evangelists understood and embraced what he calls the Secret Message of Jesus they would tell a very different story and engage the world in very different and much more transformative ways.

In many ways The Secret Message of Jesus continues the conversation that James Choung brought us last week. Namely that the gospel according to Jesus is:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. (Mark 1:15 ESV)

The rest of the book articulates what this kingdom is, how it is announced, who it’s citizens are, and where it is going. Virtually every page challenged my imagination and invited me to take a fresh look at what Jesus was actually saying. I loved it!

THINGS I LIKED

Several phrases stuck out and are helping me reframe the message of Jesus and my own response:

1. I really like what he says about worldview (p. 77) – Not just that it is a “way of seeing,” but his advice that we are “wiser to immerse ourselves in Jesus’ worldview rather than drag him into ours.” Jesus worldview is better than ours (p. 87). The story he tells about an imaginary TV reporter in Chapter 7 is brilliant.

2. Eternal Life he says (p. 63) doesn’t refer to “life after death” burt rather “an extraordinary life to the full centered in a relationship with God.” Naturally, this sort of life would continue on and on, but the focus is on life here and now.

3. Signs and Wonders are real “touches of God’s grace” (p. 82) and serve to free us from the Tyranny of the Impossible – I LOVE that phrase! He describes the significance this way:

But when the kingdom of God comes near, when we experience it, the word impossible deconstructs. It melts and evaporates, and its tyranny over us ends. (p. 83)

He says that signs and wonders are a sign of the kingdom – namely that the King is present (at hand) working all around us from the inside.

4. The purpose of parables is to hide the message (p. 71-74). Jesus says this plainly in Mark 4:9-12

Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,

“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, 
and ever hearing but never understanding; 
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’ 

Those of us in InterVarsity tend to draw attention to the danger of being an outsider, emphasizing the importance of asking questions. We say that the secret of the kingdom of God is given to those who ask questions – or maybe, ask questions of Jesus. But Brian suggests that the intention of Jesus is to hide the message in such a way that it transforms hearts.  He keeps it away from the “know-it-alls” who never ask questions and reveals it to those who have nothing but questions, i.e. children. I’m not sure this is good news for me or the people I hang out with at Harvard…

5. The Five Moves for immigration to the kingdom (Chapter 13) are brilliant:

1. Repentance – Hear from the heart and think deeply about what you hear

2. Faith – of believing, of trusting

3. Receptivity

4. Going public with repentance, faith and receptivity – Baptism

5. Learn to follow Jesus every day for the rest of your life

Amen!

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

1. The scandal of the kingdom (p. 100) is that it needs to fail to succeed. This is a shocking idea and I’m sure he’s right. It reminds me of a talk our faculty advisor Bill Stuntz gave at the Law School a few months before his death. Bill said that God’s law is designed to fail. Spot on!

2. Brian says that it is necessary to exclude from the kingdom – namely those people who are themselves exclusive! At first glance this seems like some sort of logic problem. What he’s saying is that, if someone rejects the fundamental character of God’s inclusive kingdom, for the sake of inclusion, then they must be kept outside the territory and community. This is hard, right? I understand that he is trying to protect those who have come in for reconciliation and want to be reconcilers. At the same time, I wonder where I would be today if my inclusion depended on my satisfying some criteria of inclusiveness.

3. He doesn’t attempt to solve every theological problem around the eschatology of Jesus and some (maybe many) of my friends might be nervous about his  ideas about the future and the end times. He comes down sort of hard on “prognosticators” – and not just those who are looking for the world to end on August 22. It’s not that I have a better summary of Revelation (cf. p. 223). I mostly don’t know how he holds onto hope that the kingdom will someday come (really come) in fullness in the midst of all this realized eschatology.

4. Brian writes that the kingdom isn’t about making people nice – good news for me! – but rather to help them become secret agents of another realm. He goes on to mention a variety of jobs (including military service!) that can be engaged as agents of the kingdom. But what does this really mean? And what jobs are outside the boundaries of kingdom work? Tobacco framing? Brothel management? Partner in a hedge fund? (a friend of mine from the Business School says that today this work is outside what Jesus would approve) I believe this is an area for prayer, honest conversation, mentoring, accountability and Spirit-guided-creativity.

It is true as he said of Jesus’ secret message:

…if we take it in and manage not only to look at it but also to learn to look through it, our world and our lives will look different to us at the end of our exploration. And if that happens deeply enough for enough of us, everything could change. (p. 19).


Book 1 – Speaking of Jesus: The Art of Not-Evangelism

Carl Medearis is a guy who can frustrate – even make you angry – the first time you meet him. He did that to me when he came to stay in our home and join us for some conversations a few years ago in Cambridge.

It always seemed to me and some of my friends that he was being a little cagy. He wouldn’t answer questions. Kept saying that he didn’t know – even if we asked him basic questions from theology 101. It was annoying – especially in the shadow of the Philosophy Department and Harvard Divinity School.

But Carl’s annoying, cagy way stuck, and what happened in our InterVarsity staff team and the lives of a bunch of grad students was profound. So I’m glad he finally wrote it down.

In truth, Carl isn’t really cagy – he is being completely direct and clear. And the one thing he wants to be most clear about is Jesus. Period. Jesus is all he wants to know and all he wants to talk about. Many of the things that people like Christians and missionaries (both banned words by the way) want to talk about are a distraction and a barrier to…  well…  loving God and loving others.

THINGS I LIKED (and this will be my format for future comments during this reading project):

1. Carl quotes Paul (p. 30) from 1 Corinthians 2:1-3 and this is the text that guides his witness.  Actually, Carl would say that Jesus guides it – this merely explains how. He knows nothing but Jesus and him crucified. The rest sort of follows and he invites the rest of us to join him in doing the same…

2. Knowing nothing but Jesus means his followers don’t need to defend Christendom, its history or its reasons. If it is really all about Jesus, then taking on and defending the religious history of the West (p. 48-55) doesn’t help. Carl tells us not to do it.

3. The tendency to draw a circle that defines insiders & outsiders and to try to persuade people to come inside by thinking the way I do isn’t helpful and it isn’t the way Jesus rolled. Carl opts instead (p. 90) for the invitation Jesus made to his disciples in John 6:60-64 to have him inside us – not everybody liked that idea, even in Jesus’ day!

4. I really like Carl’s stories – if you want to hear more, click on our HGSCF website and scroll down to the talk he gave in the Memorial Church in Harvard Yard in 2005. Imagine forming a discussion group on the Gospels (p. 92) and naming it “What the Hell?” I laughed out loud. On the other hand, his story about following Jesus (Isa) to Basra (p. 132 ff.) left me shaken at the hardness of my own heart.

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

1. Given his simple focus on knowing nothing but Jesus and speaking only of him I was left wondering how then to make sense of the whole Biblical narrative. Of course, if I ask Carl he might just say, “Gee, I don’t know. But, speaking of Jesus…”

2. Carl’s context in Colorado Springs differs significantly from Cambridge. I understand his interest in drinking coffee and working at Poor Richard’s Bookstore downtown. I tend to agree that this is where Jesus would be hanging out and drinking his double espresso. The question I have is, where is he hanging out here in Cambridge where we all swim in a strange brew that mixes power with fear, academic achievement with posturing and does it all in a manner that my friend Dave Schmelzer calls Grim Drivenness? It isn’t a new question or an academic one for many of us. Where is he and what would it mean to know nothing but Jesus here. Does the way of Jesus look different in Harvard Yard?


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